World

Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's remains exhumed from state mausoleum, moved to cemetery

Spanish authorities finalized preparations on Thursday morning and removed Gen. Francisco Franco's remains from a state mausoleum, seeking to exorcise the ghost of a dictator whose legacy still divides the country more than four decades after his death.

Franco led nationalist rebels to victory in the Spanish Civil War that left 500,000 dead

Relatives place the coffin of Gen. Francisco Franco into a hearse at the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, on Thursday. The late dictator's remains were relocated to Mingorrubio El Pardo, a state cemetery 20 kilometres north of the capital Madrid. (Emilio Naranjo/Pool via Reuters)

Spanish authorities finalized preparations on Thursday morning and removed Gen. Francisco Franco's remains from a state mausoleum, seeking to exorcise the ghost of a dictator whose legacy still divides the country more than four decades after his death.

Amid tight security and in virtual secrecy, his coffin was taken from the Valley of the Fallen, about 60 kilometres northwest of Madrid, and reburied in a private family vault.

"It's intensely symbolic for Spain," said political scientist Pablo Simon, "because the [Franco] monument has always been connected to those who miss the old regime."

The exhumation ceremony, which began 10:30 a.m. local time, with media barred from witnessing it, was attended by a select few, including Justice Minister Dolores Delgado, a forensics expert, a priest and 22 of Franco's descendants.

His oldest grandson, Francisco Franco, who labelled the operation and its low-key nature a political ploy by the governing Socialist Party, also attended. 

A Spanish Franco-era flag hung outside his home in Madrid's embassy district on Thursday as the relatives converged on the valley before being transported to the Mingorrubio cemetery, 55 kilometres north of where the dictator was buried for nearly four decades.

"I feel a great deal of rage because they have used something as cowardly as digging up a corpse, using a body as propaganda and political publicity to win a handful of votes before an election," his grandson said.

Watch Franco's remains being taken to a reburial site via helicopter:

The remains of ex-Spanish dictator Francisco Franco leaves the Valley of the Fallen for reburial at Mingorrubio cemetery on Thursday. 2:03

Franco led nationalist rebels, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, to victory in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, which left some 500,000 people dead, then ruled Spain in autocratic fashion until his death in 1975. Democracy returned to Spain in the following years, a period known as the Transition.

In government since mid-2018 and facing a national election next month, the Socialists have long sought to exhume his remains from the Valley of the Fallen, a huge monument built on Franco's orders and which contains the remains of combatants from both sides of the war.

The Socialists won backing for the decision to move his remains from a divided parliament, and the Supreme Court ratified it last month after dismissing a challenge from Franco's descendents.

The government estimates the move will cost up to 63,000 euros ($87,000 Cdn).

"Exhuming the dictator's body suggests that the Valley of the Fallen's significance could be reclaimed, a normal process within democracies like ours," Simon said.

Franco, centre, seen in this 1938 file photo, led nationalist rebels to victory in the Spanish Civil War, which left hundreds of thousands of people dead. He ruled Spain in autocratic fashion until his death in 1975. (The Associated Press)

Buried beside his victims 

Although Franco died in 1975, divisions within Spain over his removal from the Valley of the Fallen remain acute.

A poll from Spanish newspaper El Mundo this month showed 43 per cent of Spaniards favoured the operation, while 32.5 per cent opposed it. On Monday, government sources said some of the companies involved in the exhumation had received threats.

Franco's admirers saw him as a firm hand who fostered Spain's longest period of peace after centuries of turmoil.

However, opponents have long questioned the propriety of a dictator being buried alongside his victims. The bodies of thousands of Republicans were moved into the valley without their families' consent, while the complex itself was partially built using the forced labour of political prisoners.

One of these political prisoners include 93-year-old retired historian Nicolas Sanchez-Albornoz.

"It was time [to move him]. It was overdue," Sanchez-Albornoz said.

Franco family members arrive at the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum, a monument that was the late dictator's tomb for over four decades. (Emilio Naranjo/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

"We've waited many decades for [Franco] to disappear from this monument, which... is the shame of Spain. All the dictators of Franco's ilk have vanished from Europe — Hitler, Mussolini — and were not honoured with such tombs."

Far-right party Vox has capitalized on the frustrations of those supporting Franco's legacy, performing better than many expected in national elections in April, and considers policies barring discussion of the exhumation from public life as revisionist.

But as the next election looms, Simon said he believed the left could exploit divisions over the exhumation within the moderate right-wing parties, which abstained from the parliamentary vote on the issue.

"The [conservative] Partido Popular prefers not to discuss [the exhumation] because it could hurt their electoral interests," he said.

"It could spark a sort of cultural war between the PP and Vox, one of the most disputed and porous frontiers in this election."